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Current Issue: #220 Tracking CanLit (Spring 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 220 (Spring 2014) is now available. The issue features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

Auspicious Beginnings

  • Gail Anderson-Dargatz (Author)
    The Cure for Death by Lightning. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Terry Griggs (Author)
    The Lusty Man. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Marilyn J. Rose

In these first novels, Gail Anderson-Dargatz and Terry Griggs offer readers a great deal in terms of the "pleasure of the text." The novels do seem somewhat diffuse. Both writers published short story collections prior to these novels: Griggs’ Quickening was short-listed for the Governor-General’s Award for fiction in 1990 and Anderson-Dargatz’s The Miss Hereford Stories appeared in 1994. In turning to longer fiction, each may have attempted to include too much, to touch too many bases in getting to novel length. The ensuing books sometimes give the impression, like Stephen Leacock’s horseman, of riding off in all directions at once. At the same time there is a certain charm in the sheer energy that characterizes these books and to read them concurrently is to marvel at the ways in which a familiar site in Canadian literature—that generic space where "the regional" meets "the gothic"—continues to be plumbed in enthusiastic (and sometimes even refreshingly perverse) ways in the late 1990s. In The Cure for Death by Lightning, Anderson-Dargatz presents a fairly straightforward coming-of-age narrative in which 15-year-old Beth Weeks, growing up in the 1940s in a remote British Columbia town called Turtle Valley, contends with a great deal: her mother’s inability to speak out except through an esoteric scrapbook, her shell-shocked father’s degeneration into grotesque and erratic violence, her own awakening sexuality, and the apparent possession of her remote British Columbia community by a bear—or "bearwalker"— who may or may not be devouring children. The book won the Ethel Wilson prize for fiction and was nominated for the Giller Prize in 1996, reflecting the generally positive critical response to this novel. Indeed it has been seen by some as a worthy successor to Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook in its evocation of small-town, rural British Columbia and its respect for First Nations myths and traditions, particularly those having to do with the enigmatic figure of Coyote.

Anderson-Dargatz’s novel is protean in comparison to Watson’s spare prose and clear focus, and this is something of a problem. Beth labours to define herself against two adult benchmarks—her own mother, who speaks indirectly through the fragments assembled in her scrapbook (with its clippings, recipes, pressed flowers and amputated butterfly wings), and the old Native woman, Bertha, who dispenses holistic wisdom at every turn. A malicious incarnation of Coyote is thought to be haunting Turtle Valley, an outpost which has been made ill, it is suggested, by a mean, male-driven and essentially white territoriality (a metaphor for the European war which draws young men, including Beth’s brother, away irom home over the course of the narrative). This debilitating "land greed" is symbolized in the novel by the escalating feud between Beth’s father and his neighbour, "the Swede," over fences, as well as by the political line that severs town from reserve, falsely dividing Turtle Valley (whose name echoes that of "Turtle Island," the First Nations vision of a politically seamless North America).

At the same time, a sense of looming, covert, potentially explosive sexuality pervades the narrative as a whole—in the boy called Goat who ejaculates from church steeples, in the half-Native Nora’s courting of Beth in dark and buried rooms, in the tongue-tied love of the Tourette’s- ridden hired hand, "Filthy Billy," for Beth, and, horribly, in the sexual abuse of Beth by her father and the impotence of her mother in dealing with it. In fact, there is so much going on in The Cure for Death by Lightning that the novel seems dispersed, decentred, as if it can’t quite decide what it wants to be: a novel of "girls and women" in the Alice Munro tradition, an examination of Native and white value systems, or a bizarre suspense story about an evil force preying upon children, like Beth’s classmate Sarah Kemp who has been mauled to death by a "bear," or worse.

At times Anderson-Dargatz writes extraordinarily well, and there are a number of remarkable passages in The Cure for Death by Lightning that bring the book to life despite its sometimes ponderous plot. The scene where the world turns blue under a death-dance of flax petals is dazzling, as is that where Filthy Billy intercepts a rush of dog-odoured energy—a wind-driven, pounding, grass-splitting swath headed straight for Beth—then collapses in convulsions. Anderson-Dargatz has a gift for seeing the magic in those heightened moments when the dust-cover is lifted from the ordinary, and we glimpse with unease the preternatural that exists just below the rational surface of things. If the "cure for death by lightning" is to soak its victims in cold water and vinegar, the vinegar in this novel is acuteness of vision, this novelist’s sharp rendition of the breathless, sensate moment. The "cold water" is having too much going on that is also too conventional: incestuous sexual abuse, wise Native elders, bizarre small-town inhabitants, and so on. A larger ratio of vinegar to water, indeed a more concentrated solution altogether, might work better in snapping her readers to attention.

The Lusty Man is a very different kind of book, a Rabelaisian romp, a roaring whirl. The comedie Terry Griggs conducts a veritable "three-ring circus," to use Ruthie Stink’s words, as a hapless quasi-scholar from Toronto (where else?), with the hegemonic name of Innis С George (a comic fusion of the names of Canadian scholars Harold Innis and George Grant, no doubt), penetrates a Northern Ontario island community in search of an ancient Celtic fertility figure, the "lusty man" of the title. Unceremoniously dunked into the lake upon arrival, red Triumph TR4 and all (at which point he loses his lucky charm, a stone penis glued to his dashboard—so much for the virility of academic men), Innis is rescued and reborn into a raucous world dominated by the Stink family, a clan wherein fertility is hardly a symbolic issue. For the Stinks are real-life lusty men. They exude body heat, and those around them sooner or later capitulate to the bawdy as if the very atmosphere about them were saturated with irresistible male pheremones. Ruthie Stronghill marries Gram Stink in spite of the fact that his hands smell of dog food, because he simply makes her "eyes pop out" and her body "say howdy." Young Rita Cabel seeks her own entry into the world of lusty men via membership in the all-male "Snakes Club." Even the resident nun, Sister St. Anne, takes a flying leap into carnal temporality before the story ends.

In the meantime, timelessly and silently, cousin Holmes Stink has created a blissful counter space to the above-ground chaos that governs life on the island. His underwater living room, furnished with cast-offs that never require dusting, is a "Blue Room" made for solitude, meditation and healing, and accessible only to divers—a true mythic space whose fluidity echoes, at one calm remove, the creative chaos that is life on land in this novel. In contrast to "Holmes," Innis George is a false mytholo-gist, never "at home" on this fecund island and its watery environs. An academic "ico-nologist," an "investigative antiquarian," he has given himself over to the pursuit of the dead, the calcified, that which is not-life. After being led a merry chase through a fecund Stink-filled landscape, he can only be spat out in the end, indigestible urban lump that he is. There is anti-hegemonic method to Griggs’ madness: the island’s fruitful chaos is construed as a proper response to both academic inquiry and the outside control it represents. What matters in the face of centripetal invasion is centrifugal response. The metropolitan cannot pin down the hinterland if the hinterland refuses to stand still for it.

The Lusty Man is good fun but tends to suffer from overkill. There are too many characters too thinly drawn, too many plot lines, and too many broad jokes ("How many pecks of pickled peckers did Peter Inch have?"). Griggs’ word play is often sparkling: who else would speak of the weather as wanting to "spill its umbles"? Hilarity rules, and it is difficult to resist the book’s humorous resistance to everything—including the sombre gaze of Innis-like academic critics trying to pigeonhole books in reviews like this one. But at the end of this novel, not much sticks: there is too little to remember and almost nothing to take to heart, despite the good time that has been had by all.

What links these novels is that both are "regional" in a sense, the one dealing with the interior of British Columbia and the other with Ontario’s island-strewn near-north. (Griggs hails from Manitoulin Island, and it is clear that the book is set in that kind of space.) And in that familiar Canadian way, each yokes "the region" and "the gothic" in noticeable ways. The Cure for Death by Lightning plays it straight. A young woman criss-crosses a haunted landscape, her labyrinthine quest representing a voyage of discovery, an unveiling of dark and suppressed sexual mysteries at once feared and desired. Her task is to emerge initiated but unbroken, as Beth does at the end of the novel, hand-in-hand with her beast-turned-knight, no longer a child but a woman of sixteen who has herself slain a dragon or two in the dark forest along the way.

In The Lusty Man gothic conventions are evoked only to be parodied. Here too a quester enters a daunting landscape populated by grotesques, but that protagonist is male. There is nothing to fear on the island but the inevitability of being rendered foolish by ribald yokels. A labyrinthine journey is undertaken, but more by George’s car, at the hands of manic locals, than by the "hero," Innis C. George himself. In this inverted-gothic world, sexuality is to be neither feared or revered, but simply saluted as pleasurable play. In carnivalesque fashion, the disorderly undoes the "upper world" of light, reason and power elites in this novel, and instead canonizes a lewd lower order where unfettered appetite rules. The very sins that dethroned Innis George’s predecessor, Professor Peter Inch (who "diddled" himself out of his position as an esteemed "Mariologist") are not sins on the island, but virtues which foster perpetual plenitude, endless Stinks requiring endless Adamic naming in a virtual paradise of virility and vitality. What Griggs has done is to turn the gothic upside down, emptying it out like the "fat gut" that is Irene Inch’s purse, thereby interrogating the notion oí the "haunted wilderness" that has so often shaped "straight" Canadian fiction. Her comedie deflation of the idea of a "Gothic North" is a side-show perhaps, but one worth the price of admission, to employ her own apt circus metaphor.

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MLA: Rose, Marilyn J. Auspicious Beginnings. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #165 (Summer 2000), (Brochu, Buckler, Davies, Lowry, Ondaatje). (pg. 112 - 115)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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